Robert Liu-Trujillo is an artist looking to craft change.
He knows how powerful art can be to inspire and make social change, especially for younger consumers of his and others’ work. With a new Kickstarter project out now, we sat down with Robert to talk about his art, how social justice informs his work, navigating the picture book industry, and so much more.
Thank you so much for speaking with The Nerds of Color today!
Liu-Trujillo: Thank you for thinking about me!
So, going through your portfolio, it’s clear that social justice and community awareness really informs a lot of your work. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that and tell us how long social justice has informed your work?
Ever since I was a kid, I grew up with activist parents. I was around a lot of concepts and going through demonstrations as a young kid and then as I became a young adult, I started to kind of connect the dots for myself so I could see that was meaningful to me. And I’ve always been an artist. So when I tried to think of a way to contribute to some type of social change, I thought the best way would be to do it through art. When I was in my early 20s, I helped co-founded “Trust Your Struggle,” where we would do workshops with young people, gallery shows, exhibitions, and murals related to themes in social justice. [And], sometimes back a specific campaign or movement and sometimes just to talk about an issue of the time.
You mentioned being brought up by activist parents. Were you exposed to any sort of art that really inspired you in a certain way?
Oh, yeah, definitely. So growing up in the bay area, especially going to San Francisco, there’s a huge legacy of murals that speak about Black studies. In the graffiti world, when I was a kid, I was really obsessed with their media, and there were several writers, like Oakland graff writer Mike “Dream” Francisco and San Francisco writer “Spie,” who always infused some message about Puerto Rico or something about the Philippines or about police brutality or about colonization. There were always those themes around me. So I feel like the work that I have done and [that I] did in the past is a continuation of so many other people before me.
Absolutely. I feel as though in the last few years, especially there’s been well last year and a half roughly has really been an almost, tipping point where so many more people are aware of these issues, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement. So I’m curious how do you think the events the last few years influenced you and this work you’re doing?
It made me happy to see so many new young people take the mantle and make their own artwork. In Oakland [last summer], for example, I painted this wall with the artist Binta Ayofemi. She had a mural idea about Black Lives and reparations. But around me in downtown Oakland, there were just hundreds of young people, some of them coming out of the woodwork, but a lot of younger artists talking about police brutality and social justice issues. So I’m really happy that continues to go on because it’s really easy in the US to just fall asleep. It just is really great to see people make new art talking about it, so the next generation can see that and ask questions.
Shifting gears a bit. You do work in the picture book industry as well. I’ve always known publishing to often be very white-centric. There’s still a lot of ingrained white supremacy in the industry. I’m curious if you see the picture book industry getting better for Black and Indigenous and other people of color and your experience.
Yeah, definitely. When I started to get into the industry, around the late 2000s — maybe around 2007 or 2008, I didn’t actually get my first book deal until 2013. I would say yes, the industry is predominantly white, predominantly older, and is predominantly heterosexual cisgender. It’s a long legacy of exclusion of keeping all of the other people that don’t fit in the box I just mentioned out. I would say in the early 2010s, there began a moment for people who were trying to [get involved]. We Need Diverse Books was one of them. Just reading through the statistics — the number of books that are published [and] the number of people on your staff, you have to do something about this. If people hadn’t done that, then they wouldn’t have done anything, but it is going to get better and there’s still a long way to go.
But, I definitely do see a huge, shining light in the self-publishing and independent world where Black folks especially, but also Asian Americans, Latinos, and Indigenous folks going out and creating their own book festivals, publishing their own books, making their own forms of distribution, and supporting POC and Black owned bookstores. So it is definitely getting better, [but] it has a long way to go.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s all about making that space. We should like try to go for these big spaces as well, but it’s still so important for all of us to cultivate our own spaces and incubate and grow those in the art world.
Yeah, it’s both. The industry needs to do better and we also have to do the work as well.
Absolutely. So, we talked earlier about how social justice informs your work. I’m curious about how you go about informing a younger audience with that. How in these picture books, murals, and the work geared towards younger audiences, do you want to connect with them and sort of inform them about that? Explain to us how you aim to connect with younger audiences through your art.
Yeah, that’s a great topic. One of the fiction books that I just finished working on is called Alejandria’s Fights Back. It’s a bilingual picture book about an Afro-Latina who is in danger of being evicted, her and her family and the people in her building in her neighborhood. She doesn’t like that [and] she pushes back and wants to know how she can stop it from happening. I think for children who are elementary school-age — maybe even some middle grade/ junior high school children, these books are a great way to engage them about the topic, especially those who may not be living in that world.
I feel like it’s a great doorway for parents and adults, whether they be teachers or librarians, to have a good conversation with them about what is happening because, although it’s the kid’s book industry and their formula may not want to do a book about topics like that, it is happening. The reason why I liked doing the book, because it’s not just about having a protest sign or attending a demonstration, it’s about organizing people’s power and taking into a center of power, which in the book is City Hall. I think kids books are a great way to do that [and] exposing kids to lots of different types of movements, not just in the U.S., but internationally, and letting them know about workers’ movements/workers’ rights. Those are all really important. But I think the main message is that children are really smart, they’re sharp, and they pay attention to a lot. The younger we start talking to them about the social inequities and social justice, the better.
That’s really great. What are some other projects that you’d like to work on? Are there any other big goals you have in terms of the art you’d like to put out there?
Yeah. I’m doing this Kickstarter for an art book, which is basically a collection of character designs, sketches, paintings, typography, and more. A lot of encouragement is lacking in Black and indigenous and POC communities to encourage young kids to pursue the arts. I think it’s important to see the work of other artists and specialist sketches — some of their thinking, it’s important to encourage them to be artists. I think it’s one way for adults to help kids look [at a different lens]. We can all become glued to a screen and to have the opportunity to unplug and look at something else. It’s really important. Literacy is also really important to me. That’s one of the reasons why I got kids’ books and editions and murals. So I hope, even though there’s a little bit of text and more visuals in this book, I hope that it’ll be a doorway for kids trying to seek out more books like that and to read it. [I want them to] look at books and see it as a way of fun — as opposed to homework or medicine they have to take. In addition to doing the art book, I just plan to keep on working with a collective and supporting bureaus that talk about social justice issues and continuing to do illustrations for nonprofits, movements, campaigns, things like that.
That sounds amazing, man. Thank you so much for talking with The Nerds of Color today!
Yeah, thank you for having me. I really appreciate all of the work they do to just expand people’s knowledge about media and books and film and all those different aspects.
To find out more about Robert Liu-Trujillo and his work, check it out here.